California judge dismisses criminal charges against PG&E in fatal 2020 fire

REDDING, Calif. (AP) — A California judge on Wednesday dismissed all charges against Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with a deadly 2020 wildfire sparked by its equipment that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed four people, including an 8-year-old child.

The utility also reached a $50 million settlement agreement with the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office, officials from the two said in separate statements.

The wind-whipped fire began on September 27, 2020 and raged through rugged terrain and small communities west of Redding, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers ) of land in Shasta and Tehama. counties.

In 2021, state fire investigators concluded the fire was started by a jack pine that fell on a PG&E distribution line. Shasta and Tehama counties sued the utility, alleging negligence. They said PG&E failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier. The utility says the tree was later cleared to remain.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett determined the company was criminally responsible for the fire and charged the utility later that year.

Shasta Superior Court Judge Daniel E. Flynn disagreed and, in an interim ruling ahead of a hearing on Wednesday, said prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to show that PG&E’s was engaged in criminal conduct, according to the Sacramento Bee, which obtained a copy of the ruling.

“The tree was not a known hazard prior to the Zogg fire, and there is no evidence to support the assertion of the people in their opposition,” the judge wrote.

The utility said in a statement that under the agreement with Shasta County, which is subject to court approval, it will fund $45 million in contributions to organizations dedicated to reconstruction and rehabilitation. helping local communities. The company will also pay a $5 million civil penalty to the county.

“We support our thousands of trained and experienced colleagues and contractors who work every day to keep Californians safe. We are confident that these good faith judgments are not criminal,” said Patti Poppe, CEO of PG&E Corporation.

Bridgett said her goal was still to bring PG&E to justice and hold them criminally accountable, but Flynn’s interim ruling changed her position and she agreed to a settlement that includes the dropping of all charges.

“I don’t want to mess with Shasta County security,” she said. “I have a responsibility to the community and needed to ensure what I can for all citizens to prevent future wildfires, prevent future deaths and devastation, and be as prepared as our county can be. be if another occurs.”

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $150 million settlement between Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division regarding PG&E’s role in the Zogg fire. . As part of the agreement, the utility will pay $10 million as a penalty to California’s general fund and invest $140 million in shareholder funds in new wildfire mitigation efforts, said officials.

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